The Taliban and the government: talking about talking

A lot of work needs to be done before peace talks between Afghanistan government and Taliban can occur.

The Taliban have been at war with the Afghan government for so long that few officials have been unaffected by the violence [AFP]

Afghanistan’s second-most powerful official, Dr Abullah Abdullah announced on Monday in an open cabinet meeting in Kabul that his government will hold peace talks with the Afghan Taliban.

Predictably the news spread across the world quickly and the Taliban were forced to issue a statement – which is a great example of how not to say anything while still saying something. There’s a line in the statement saying that if the group was in fact talking to the Afghan government, it would announce it officially. 

For the Afghan Taliban it’s a very sensitive issue. The Taliban are aware that they gain much of their strength and credibility from being a resistance movement and that talks, framed incorrectly, could damage that image.

Abdul Waheed Wafa, a political analyst based out of Kabul University, said: “It’s too early to talk about the talks. We need to talk about the issues before the talks. There needs to be an internal consensus in Afghanistan about the issue.”

But getting that consensus will be difficult.

Violence close to home

The Taliban have been at war with the US and the Afghan government for so long that there are few in Afghan politics who haven’t had personal experience of the violence. To make the point that the Taliban are still at war, a few days later the group claimed responsibility for an attack in Kabul.

The Afghan Government face a huge task in building a framework for the talks.

Wafa thinks the process will be a long time coming. “The Afghan government faces a huge challenge. There is mistrust in the region between Kabul and Islamabad and the Taliban so there is a lot of work to be done. Most crucially we need to understand what the Taliban want,” he said

Figuring out what the Taliban wants poses a huge challenge to all parties. There are those who feel the Taliban are playing for time. They know that the Americans are leaving and therefore are looking for a way to leave quickly with having to re-engage as they have done in Iraq. For the Taliban, it’s likely that they will want a constitutional amendment that institutes Islamic law.

A second problem is the Pakistani Taliban, who present a significant challenge to Islamabad and that’s driving some of the mistrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

History is also rearing its head. The Afghans and the Taliban have been here before. In 2013 Mullah Omar, the reclusive leader of the group, paved the way for talks but to no avail. Ultimately, he blamed American and the Hamid Karzai government for the failures.

The Americans and Karzai quickly blamed the Taliban and, in particular, the then-Afghan president accused the group of using its political office in Qatar as an unofficial embassy of a government in exile.

According to media reports at the time, it took nearly three years of on-and-off secret talks to get both sides to a position where talks might be possible. When it comes to this kind of diplomacy it’s very hard to tell fact from fiction. What we do know is that in the last 12 months, talks have taken place in China and Oman.

Afghan-Pakistan operation

That the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has invested in talks with Pakistan is an encouraging sign and it seems to have paid off. In December, Pakistani and Afghan forces mounted something akin to a joint operation where Afghan troops took on elements of the Pakistani Taliban. Intelligence was supplied, according to sources in Islamabad, by Pakistan.

However, that hasn’t dulled suspicions completely and some in Kabul wonder out loud whether Pakistan is forcing the Pakistani Taliban into Afghan territory so they become an Afghan problem.

Another clue in the puzzle is the timing of Pakistan’s top spy’s visit to Washington on Wednesday. Even the most casual observer believe Lieutenant General Rizwan Akhtar, the head of the ISI, will discuss the Taliban talks during his visit.

The US has a genuine desire for Taliban talks to be a success. Under the current withdrawal plan, the 10,000-strong US force will drop to 5,000 by the end of 2015 and then pull out altogether by the time US President Barack Obama leaves office in two years.

Right now the talks seem to be simply about all sides trying to shape what should be on the agenda and clearly specifics are a long way off.

But there is some hope that once all parties agree that you can at least talk about the talks, then perhaps real talking will eventually take place.

Source: Al Jazeera